THE PASSION OF THE MASOCHRIST
From Exquisite Corpse (www.corpse.org)
Coming Attraction: The Passion of the Buddha?
It’s rumored that Mel Gibson has been hired to do for Buddhism what he’s done for Christianity. His next film will be The Passion of the Buddha. Do you know the story? The Buddha’s end also came through a sacrifice. A lavish banquet was prepared for him but one of the dishes was contaminated. Knowing this, and having consideration for his host and companions, the Buddha chose to eat the poisonous food and leave the wholesome dishes for the rest of the assembly. What followed is rather harrowing—but imagine the vast cinematic possibilities. Twelve hours of vomiting, diarrhea, excruciating pain, and intestinal bleeding. Though the scriptures remain discretely reticent on this subject, there was no doubt abundant and painful gas. In short, the stuff that Mel Gibson movies are made of.
Somehow I doubt whether many Buddhists would find this drama very compelling. However, there may be among them a few naive souls with a pathologically morbid fear of being reincarnated as a slug who might think it could do them some good. If the film materializes, we will certainly investigate this question carefully. Meanwhile, we will be content to take a look at Gibson’s first stab at a passion story.
As I entered the theater I felt immediately that this was a strange ambience for what I had been told was a deeply religious experience. No incense wafted through the atmosphere, but there was a pervasive fragrance of butter. This was no eucharistic feast but there was a whole lotta eatin’ goin’ on! Did the sin of gluttony go out with usury?
The Crucifixion had to wait for a long series of trailers. A collection of cinematic factoids. A short exhorting the audience to “put an end to piracy” with a moving description of the heroic efforts put in to cinematic car chase scenes that should not go un- or under-rewarded. A slapstick vignette from the American Express Corporation about blowing up gophers. A comic episode, starring a bear and dedicated to the greater glory of Hershey’s Chocolate. An offer of the entire Matrix saga on DVD. A grotesquely obscene Coke ad (actually a mock-eucharist) about the unification of humanity through the distribution of colored sugar-water by a benevolently beaming black lady who incants “I wish I could share all the love in my heart” while actually sharing nothing more that colored sugar-water that is not in the real world shared but actually sold to the many millions of the wretched of the earth at a rather exorbitant cost. Feeble adolescent humor, delivered by actual adolescents who probably know better, on behalf of Movietickets.com. Previews of Agent Cody Banks, Two Brothers and Spiderman. A futile plea for the audience members to turn off the cell phones (a big question: when Jesus asks “Father why hast Thou forsaken me?” will one of those damn phones go off, as if the answer has finally arrived?) And, assuming that this generally husky congregation hungered and thirsted for more than righteousness, one more plug for visiting the concessions for a final dose of buttered popcorn and colored sugar water.
Finally, as the result of our purgatorial efforts in enduring this mild but seeming interminable torture, we are informed that “Icon Productions” and “New Market Films” are ready to reward us with the blood and gore (and who knows, maybe the salvation) we’ve come here for.
When Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons come to my door, I sometimes greet them with, “No thanks, I already have a mythology.” Well, it’s more or less the same product that’s on sale here. Somehow most of the commentators on this film, even those who are vaguely troubled by it, haven’t quite caught on. Most reviewers have either let it pass for “history,” or criticized it to varying degrees as inaccurate or somewhat misguided history.
Mel Gibson certainly made a heroic effort to create the illusion of historical authenticity. The actors worked for months on their lines in Aramaic and Latin. And Mel Gibson’s Jerusalem was not rebuilt in Rome in a day. No, his army of slaves labored mightily to construct a 2 ½ acre set, including a temple, a courtyard, a praetorium and Pontius Pilate's palace, at Cinecita Studios, while the outdoor scenes were shot in the ancient Italian town of Matera in the south. Never before have so many done so much to make things seem so old. But despite all this impressive imagineering, it’s not history. The product is pure mythology. And the specific brand of the product is blood sacrifice mythology. It’s the brand typical of ancient barbarism, and has fueled a multitude of barbarisms ever since—even to the present.
Despite the raves of the local movie reviewers and church bulletin writers, the experts have pretty well dissected the claims of authenticity. Take Jesus for example. Physical anthropologist Joe Zias, an expert on the ancient Near East, notes that Gibson’s Jesus is long-haired, as he’s depicted in Western religious art and popular culture, whereas. Jewish men of the period in reality had short hair. He also explains that neither Jesus nor his cross-totin’ helper would have been able to carry the whole cross as depicted by Gibson. The thing might have weighed as much as 350 lbs.! If Gibson really wanted to salvage the scene he would have to change the title to The Passion of the Hulk and maybe call in Arnold. In real crucifixions, the upright support stayed in place at the execution site, and the victim only carried the cross bar. Furthermore, if Jesus’ hands were nailed as in Gibson’s film, the weight of his body would have torn them from the nails, and the Roman soldiers would be mocking Jesus for continually falling off the cross. In reality, crucifixions took place at busy crossroads, so that the victims could be made an example, rather than on a remote hillside that fit Gibson’s dramatic intentions better. Finally, “victims of this form of state terror were always stripped naked whereas here the actor is clothed.”i Presumably, historically accurate nudity would be taboo for Gibson and his cult, while something like the historically unverifiable reduction of Jesus’s flesh to the consistency of an uncooked Big Mac patty is no threat to their sense of the obscene. In short, to hell with history, we’re in the world of sado-masochistic fantasy and blood sacrifice mythology.
What about the extraordinary effort at authenticity involved in having the actors memorize their lines in Latin and Aramaic? Well, Gibson’s Latin-speakers should really have been speaking Greek to be accurate. Also, the Latin is completely wrong for the period, since in the film church Latin rather than classical Latin is used. This was convenient, since it’s pronounced like Italian, the language of most of the actors, but it didn’t even exist in Jesus’s day. Biblical scholar Bruce Chilton summarizes just how bad it all is. “In fact, the Semitic-language scenes are a wild brew of Aramaic, Hebrew, and Syriac with grammatical mistakes in all three. The Latin is pretty good, but to have Jesus conversing learnedly with Pilate in that language is just too funny for words. There is not a word of Greek in this film, not even in the titulus on the cross, although John’s Gospel specifies that the charge against Jesus was written in Greek (19:20) as well as in Latin and Aramaic.”ii A rumor has it that Gibson’s advisors informed him that based on solid focus group data he could probably get away with a placard saying “Esusjay of Asarethnay, Ingkay of the Ewsjay,” but he rejected it as a little too chancy.
Gibson’s theory seems to be that authenticity is in the eye of the beholder—and in the ear of the uncomprehending hearer. If it’s some kind of Aramaic, that should be enough. Who cares if the Aramaic sounds like the English in old war movies that’s spoken with ludicrously heavy German accents so that we can pretend that we’re actually hearing German. In Mel Brooks’ History of the World Part I the French peasants complain that the aristocrats took everything from them—even their language. As they lament, “We just have these lousy accents!” In The Passion, the Romans apparently left the natives with their language, but they still ended up with lousy accents. Which only proves that Mel Brooks himself should definitely have done this movie. The Romans could have spoken English with an Italian accent, the Jews with a Yiddish accent, and Jesus, as the only half-non-Earthling in the script (it’s a fact!), could have spoken like Mr. Spock.
Much has also been made not only of the ersatz historicity of the film, but also of its supposed “faithfulness” to the Scriptures. But that’s far from the truth. Gibson’s many revisions and insertions have been pointed out, including the padding of a number of scenes with material that comes not from Holy Writ but from the writings of the anti-Semitic German nun, Anne Catherine Emmerich (1774-1824). In her book of meditations and visions, The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ,iii she includes numerous anti-Semitic passages, including one in which she has a vision of an episode in Hell in which we discover that “Satan desired the crime of the Jews.”iv In another passage that might well have inspired some of Gibson’s scenes, she observes that “the sight of [Jesus’s] sufferings, far from exciting a feeling of compassion in the hard hearted Jews, simply filled them with disgust, and increased their rage. Pity was, indeed, a feeling unknown in their cruel breasts.”v
Let’s consider some other glaring problems that are often overlooked concerning the relationship between The Passion and the New Testament accounts. Take the depiction of Judas. Some questionable points can be dispensed with quickly. For example, when he gets his thirty pieces of silver it’s sent sailing through the air to him in slow motion from about twenty paces away. The camera follows it as it carefully homes in on its target. Stee-rike! (though Judas bungles it a bit). OK, dramatic license, since the Bible doesn’t say exactly how it was presented to him. But after this, Gibson shows Judas giving the thirty pieces of silver back and then going away to hang himself, as the Gospel of Matthew indeed recounts. But in the Acts of the Apostles Judas doesn’t give it back at all, but instead buys a plot of land with his accursed silver. After which he falls down. He splits open. His guts gush out. Actually this is a much more interesting story and just gory enough to delight a Mel Gibson—who nevertheless omits it, as he omits all the other variations of the New Testament stories.
To be really faithful to Scripture, Gibson would have had to do a sort of Rashomon-style story, offering the viewer the various conflicting Biblical accounts of what happened to Judas, what Jesus’ last words were, whether there was an earthquake, when exactly Jesus was resurrected, etc. As it is, he sides with just one of the accounts, possibly giving the viewer the impression that the others might actually be wrong. Pretty close to blasphemy, I’d say!vi
Despite all the hype about historical accuracy and loyalty to Scripture, Gibson himself admitted that he had an ax to grind in the film: "This is my version of what happened, according to the gospels and what I wanted to show—the aspects of it I wanted to show.”vii So he had this ax, and it ends up as a very bloody one, as we shall see, in the course of his religious crusade.
What exactly is the religious outlook that forms the basis for Gibson’s image of The Passion? It’s a reactionary form of Catholicism, but that generic description hardly does it justice. It’s roots go far back in Gibson’s life. While he’s widely thought to be Australian he was actually born in Peekskill, New Yorkviii in 1956 and raised there till the age of twelve, when his father, Hutton Gibson, took the family to Australia. The faith of his father is Mel’s model for his version of ol’ time Catholicism. Hutton Gibson is a “Sedevacantist” a term derived from the Latin for “empty seat." The Sedevacantists believe that every Pope since John XXIII has been illegitimate (in the legalistic, and not necessarily the parental, sense). Don’t try to explain to them the ridiculousness of their position; they’ll just give you that Sedevacant stare in return. Critics claim that Hutton’s Sedevacantism also encompasses anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial.
For much of his life, Gibson didn’t quite grasp the profundities of the Sedevacantist Weltanschauung. But then things got really bad and his father’s cult started to look increasingly good. Gibson reports that as a result of a way-out-of-control life with excesses of drugs and alcohol, he reached a low point over a decade ago. "I would get addicted to anything, anything at all. Okay? Doesn't matter what it is … drugs, booze, anything. You name it — coffee, cigarettes, anything. Alright?”ix
Alright, we got it! The obvious solution was fundamentalist religion—addicts usually pick up any convenient drug if it’s lying nearby on the self. And it’s perfect for the addictive personality since it’s all about abject dependency. That’s why it’s proven to be such a great cure for addictions in so many tough cases. It’s like methadone addiction as a cure for heroin addiction. Well, Gibson desperately needed some kind of cure. He says that he finally even contemplated throwing himself out of a window. Instead, he turned to the Bible—and apparently threw it out of the window after finding a few useful ideas. In reflecting on his conversion experience he concludes that “pain is the precursor to change, which is great . . . That's the good news.”x In Gibson’s hands it’s not exactly the Good News in what some might think of as the Gospel sense. Maybe the truth is that a lot of pain led Mel Gibson to change Jesus into what Gibson needed him to be: a bloody icon produced on behalf of regressive fundamentalist religion.
Which is what he has put a lot of his own personal effort into creating. For example, he built his own little ultra-traditionalist Catholic chapel and has pre-Vatican II Latin Masses said there. Gibson said “I'm just Roman Catholic, the way they were up until the mid '60s.”xi But of course Roman Catholics were no more one way before the mid 60’s than everybody was one way before the way-out 60’s changed like everything man.
Gibson thinks that those ol’ time Catholics were really tough-assed. In an interview with The New Yorker he said that not only benighted pagans and cursed infidels but also misguided heretical Christians like his own wife (if she doesn’t clean up her spiritual act) are damned to Hell.xii Elsewhere he says that she deserves a medal for helping him with his addiction. I wonder if people get to wear their medals in Hell? What’s the correct Sedavacantist position on this one?
Leading man Jim Caviezel, by the way, shares Gibson’s Catholic fundamentalist faith. Caviezel, an authentic native of Washington State, is a pretty Aryan-looking choice for the role of long-haired Jesus. But with his blue eyes cinematically transubstantiated into brown, and his dark hair he comes across as exotically handsome and of indeterminate if certainly European ethnicity. Cavaziel reports that a crucial turning point in his life was a visit to the legendary village of Medjugorje in Bosnia, famous as the site of the Blessed Virgin Mary’s repeated appearances for conversations with teenagers (why if the BVM was targeting teens she didn’t do it through a more effective channel—MTV comes to mind—we’ll probably never know). He reports that “I felt extraordinary peace and love there, in this little town of 300 families. The sun literally dances in the sky. It's the only place Slobodan Milosevic couldn't get with his guns. They'd fly missions over this little town, try to drop bombs, and clouds would come up and they couldn't find it. That place led me to this role. It was Mary, again, who led me to do this.”xiii If the teens asked the BMV why she let the bombs drop on the other villages, or why she let their citizens be herded into concentration camps, gang-raped, and slaughtered, Caviezel does not divulge her answer. Maybe she prefers to hang out in places with those “literally” dancing suns and smaller Muslim populations.
Gibson proves that a plot can be wafer-thin yet thick headed at the same time. There are a few plot details beyond the central sado-masochistic theme. But in all of them, the treatment is heavy-handedly unimaginative, as I suppose authentic faith-based film initiatives have to be. The Bible says that Jesus was mocked, so mocking we get—and more mocking, and more mocking. While the hand washing of the white washed Pontius Pilate is robbed of all irony, the plebian Roman troops, like the Jewish mob, come across as ignorant, sadistic louts who can’t do much other than mock and brutalize. With a few noble exceptions, the Jews—especially the High Priests—are depicted as deeply and insidiously evil. We also get a glimpse of Herod’s court, which is depicted as a sort of freak show. Herod appears to be gay, there’s a morbidly obese woman, and an actual black person. More or less the late-50’s popular misconception of a gathering of Beatniks.
The film gives lip service to “love your enemy,” but the non-verbal communication is clear: these are enemies you can really love—to hate. The film is obsessed with mocking and thus betrays the deep fundamentalist fear of its absurdities being unmasked through humor, ridicule or satire. Like all kinds of dogmatism, fanaticism, and rigid domination, fundamentalism depends on maintaining a fragile, self-denying, grimly serious state of (un-)consciousness. That’s why the “True Christian,” the “Real Man,” the “Red-Blooded American,” and the “Proud White,” as good as they are at laughing at others, seldom have a sense of humor and never have a sense of irony. So Gibson is out to get the mockers, and especially the Jewish mockers. Sometimes his Jews even mock when the mocking makes absolutely no sense. For example, when Jesus is accused of curing illness with the assistance of devils, the crowd comes out with a big guffaw, as if to say, “Yeah, like, really.” But saying this would put them on Jesus’s side, since they’d really be laughing at the High Priests’ accusations, and thus defending him against these accusations. A non-brain-dead director or screenwriter would have had them shaking in their sandals instead.
But even the vicious and crude mockery of the crowds pales beside other more powerful images of evil. The classic imagery linking Woman-Nature-Evil is especially striking. This time Woman is not only a tool of Satan, she is Satan! The widely commented-upon “androgynous” Satan tilts decidedly toward the gynous side (and is played by Italian actress Rosalinda Celentano). At one point one wonders if the Demonic Lady’s name might not be Philosophia, for she tempts Jesus with such questions as “Who is your father? Who are you?” These are precisely the questions that seem to have been at the center of the director’s own crisis-ridden life. Is it his father’s will that is finally being done? Has he found a self that is acceptable to his father and that he can finally be satisfied with?
But Satan lives far more in the world of the deeply and frighteningly irrational than in the realm of reason. There’s a mock pieta scene in which the ghastly Satanetta cradles a grotesque Devil-Child, who chimes in with the general Jesus-mocking. Nature, on the other hand, is primarily the mute background for the human and superhuman drama. Except when it slithers out into full view as a ghastly serpent whose head is quickly crushed under Jesus’s heel. But it’s Ms. Satan who steals the show. She’s by far the most attractive figure in this film. She lurks menacingly behind the scenes and then shocks the hell out of you. Her weird, evil creepiness is infinitely more powerful than Jesus’s divine wholesomeness. As the Crucifixion reaches its climax, she screeches out like a deranged rock star. Diabla! She deserves her own movie.
There are a few hints thrown in that Jesus may have had a life off the Via Dolorosa. There’s a flashback to Jesus as a young carpenter. He just finished building a table and he hops up on it, apparently to check to see if it will hold him. First, I wondered how many tables collapsed while he was practicing before he found a good design. Then it occurred to me that if he did find a good design, why would he still be hopping up? But wait—maybe this was the first one that didn’t collapse. But this still doesn’t work because if he’s God, wouldn’t he already know whether it would hold him? So why would he have to hop up? And if he could walk on water, wouldn’t almost any table be strong enough to hold him? It’s questions like this that try one’s faith. There’s also a little bit of Resurrection at the end, almost as a brief afterthought. Strangely, while the seeming thousands of wounds and scars have completely disappeared from Jesus’ body, he still has holes in the palms of his hands. Are we to conclude that only hand-wounds are Resurrection-proof? Gibson can claim that he’s just following tradition on this point, but having previously turned Jesus into more or less one big wound, the survival of only a couple of them seems particular absurd. Needless to say, there’s no Ascension into Heaven. Let’s be honest, Gibson just wasn’t bravehearted enough to try it. With all the financial resources and cinematic technology at his disposal, he still didn’t have the guts to take on the challenge of showing Jesus rising up into the stratosphere. This wouldn’t just be falling into the carnivalesque, but even worse, into the Canaveralesque. State-of-the-art special effects would of course have precluded any need for those all-too-conspicuous strings that detracted from earlier efforts at staging the scene. But Gibson knew that whatever he might do, the audience would undoubtedly still see the strings he was pulling, suspecting that they were probably attached to those holes that he left in Jesus’ palms.
The truth is that Gibson’s attempts to portray Jesus are cinematically doomed from the outset. This discussion makes no pretense of being a detailed theoretical critique of the film, but if it were, I’d point out that the downfall of the film was the director’s adoption of a fundamentalist concept of incarnation that’s aesthetically and dramatically lethal. This is, so to speak, its cinematic Original Sin. There’s an irreconcilable contradiction involved in an attempt both to mythologize and at the same time to humanize. If incarnation is the synthesis of the finite and the infinite, fundamentalist film Jesus incarnates precisely the failure to achieve that synthesis—in its place there’s only a bad finitude and a bad infinitude held in suspension. Of course, there’s always possibility of a leap of faith that seeks to surmount all contradictions, even dramatic one, but in this case it’s a leap into an abyss of bad taste.
Forget it, Gibson, Jesus don’t play that. Not Cornell West’s Jesus, anyway. According to theologian and political activist West, “we’re living in the biggest empire since the Roman Empire. Now the underside of the Roman Empire is the cross. That’s where political prisoners were put to death. Those that had the courage to act over against the powers that be. Now we are in the American Empire . . . the legatee of Constantian Christianity,” the imperial religion of “the persecution of Jews and others.” Cornell West asks Gibson if he’s “really gonna talk about the empire that we’re a part of now?” and Gibson answers, “No, I’m gonna give you sadomasochistic voyeurism.” But Cornell West’s Prophetic Christianity says to Gibson’s version of the Passion, “No way, Hosea.” “No, not for my Jesus. . . . . I have reality shows for that,” he points out.xiv
The religious left in general is appalled by the film, for much the same reasons as West. Tom Beaudoin, in one of the film’s most unrelentingly negative reviews, “The anti-Christian Passion of the Christ,” sums up the problem: the film “over-individualizes Christianity by divorcing Jesus’ crucifixion from other crucifixions . . . we are kept from seeing the banality of his death as something suffered by thousands of other political prisoners in his day.”xv It’s not that it has absolutely no “redeeming values” but that these values are drowned in a sea of blood. Somewhere within the two hours of torture there are a few minutes of love and forgiveness—there’s even a radical Jesus who warns that those who live by the sword will die by the sword. And the policies of Empire in the Middle East really don’t come over too well. But it’s unlikely that American audiences as the result of this film will be overcome by any sudden impulse to “sell everything (or maybe even anything) they have and give it too the poor” or to throw their bodies in the way of the murderous armies of Empire. It’s more likely that they’ll accept with teary, mildly masochistic gratitude the fact that they’ve been ransomed, and remain righteously content to wallow in the fruits of Empire as they make plans to come back and watch Agent Cody Banks while stuffing their faces with buttery popcorn.
The film’s few hints at Jesus the AnarChrist’s utopian vision of justice and compassion are overwhelmed by the dominant images of Blood Sacrifice of the MasoChrist. The core of the narrative is the ransom theory much beloved by both retrograde ultra-traditionalist Catholics and reactionary Protestant fundamentalists. This film is a paradigm case of how the repressive forces of communication operate in the consumer society. Heavy-handed censorship is never really necessary. Despite the fears of the overly paranoid right, subversive images can safely be tolerated—Jesus could have safely spouted pacifistic slogans and could even have repeated his famous nasty comment about the slim chances that the rich have of reaching Paradise. All that is necessary is a dominant message that overwhelmingly reinforces passive acceptance of That Which Is (what the AnarChrist would call “the World” and which includes most of what is called “the Church”). Mel Gibson’s version fits the mold perfectly. Lip service to love and justice, center stage for the Blood Sacrifice—its all been done for you, so revel in an emotional orgy. Big vicarious pain, big self-justifying gain.
Jesus the AnarChrist is overwhelmed by Jesus the MasoChrist. The justifiable uproar over the film’s anti-Semitism has unfortunately obscured another problem with the film: that it’s basically a glorification of sado-masochistic murder. It’s a Catechism of Sado-masochism. According to the fundamentalist interpretation of the film—as the fundamentalists themselves explain it—it’s about Jesus dying so that his Father would forgive our sins. In other words, it’s about a father demanding the death of an innocent child for things the poor kid’s not responsible for. God, what a role model! Even as I write I read in a story from the Associated Press reporting that a fundamentalist Christian mother in Tyler, Texas was acquitted of murder for stoning two of her home-schooled children to death and maiming a third. She did it for the very traditional, Biblically-correct reason that she was “divinely chosen by God to kill her children as a test of faith.” She did show a bit of spiritual originality when she explained further that she was also chosen “to serve as a witness after the world ended.”xvi
Interestingly the mother was acquitted “by reason of insanity.” Nevertheless, according to many reports, millions of fundamentalist Christians sit weeping through The Passion not at all because they are witnessing the depiction of the murder of an innocent person in the name of what can only be described as a completely bloodthirsty, vindictive, sadistic and insane Divine Tyrant. No, it’s because this torture and murder are allegedly being done in the name of their own pathetic, wormlike, submissive selves (or at least the masochistic side of their sado-masochistic selves) according to the sane, rational logic of blood sacrifice. But Biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan’s response seems much more humane, ethical and sane: “I do not believe in a God who could forgive gratuitously but actually does so only after Jesus has been beaten to a bloody pulp in our place. If I accepted . . . Gibson's vision of this savage God, I hope I would have the courage to follow Mrs. Job's advice: ‘Curse God, and die’ (2:9).”xvii In one of the most ill conceived moves in the film, Gibson has a divine tear fall dramatically from the sky (i.e., where God is) at the Crucifixion. Presumably we’re supposed to conclude that the Cosmic Child-Killer is saying, “Sorry, kid, this is hurting me more than it’s hurting you.” But the whole point of it is that Jesus is the one who’s getting hurt, specifically in order to satisfy the disgruntled Patriarch. And besides, as Mel should have realized, nobody has ever fallen for that line from a child-abuser.
This story of blood sacrifice is the overwhelmingly central one of the film. Not only do the few meager “love your enemies” passages get overwhelmed by the ransom theme, but the treatment of one of Jesus’ actual enemies in the film speaks much more loudly than these compassionate words. When one of the thieves crucified next to Jesus mocks him, a raven flies down, lights on top of the cross, and pecks out the thief’s eyes out. Presumably the bird was sent on this mission by the Heavenly Father, who decided that the thief needed a little torture and mutilation before dying. The words “love your enemies” begin to appear as hollow as the sockets of the poor thief’s eyes. One could imagine a sequel to this film in which Gibson would cast Jesus a bit differently to unleash even more of the sadistic side of the director’s sado-masochism. After all, despite the successful ransom proposition there’s still a lot of Hell and Purgatory to work with. How about a triumphant Christus Rex putting the hurt on hapless sinners, especially those mockers? Gibson could call it Jesus in Furs.
Do Mel Gibson’s cinematic abuses mean that there’s no place for sadism, masochism, violence, or cruelty and film. Far from it, though I could imagine him giving sado-masochism a bad name for a long time to come. However, long ago Artaud in The Theater and Its Doublexviii described a “theater of cruelty” that helps one understand the aesthetic, intellectual and spiritual, obtuseness of efforts such as Gibson’s Passion and suggests what a creative, living “cinema of cruelty” might be. Cruelty in Artaud’s sense is the “will” and “blind appetite for life capable of overriding everything,”xix as opposed to Gibson’s nihilistic rejection of real life, real humanity and real nature. Rather than numbing us by depicting, as Gibson does, “the lives of a few puppets,” it “wakes us up.”xx Rather than reinforcing our reactive fears and prejudices, it “overturns our preconceptions” and “acts upon us like a spiritual therapeutics whose touch can never be forgotten.”xxi Rather than ignoring living nature, it can “cause the whole of nature to re-enter the theater in its restored form.”xxii Rather than superficially playing with our sentiments, it is “unafraid of going as far as necessary in the exploration of our nervous sensibility.”xxiii Artaud contends that “the magical liberties of dreams” can only be “liberated” through a certain “cruelty and terror” that “probes our entire vitality, confronts us with all our possibilities.”xxiv For Artaud, there is a need to create what Artaud calls “a metaphysics” (since he didn’t have the word “surre(gion)ality”)—“a metaphysics of speech, gesture, and expression, in order to rescue it from its servitude to psychology and ‘human interest.’”xxv The kind of “metaphysics” or anarchy of regionalities that a Grünewald or a Bosch can call forth in painting, and that a Pasolini or a Lynch can create (often with exquisite cruelty) in film. As Artaud says, this is far from any heavy-handed intrusion of metaphysical much less religious concepts but rather a more subtle “temptation of these ideas” through “humor with its anarchy” and “poetry with its symbolism and images.” Religious directors can be exquisite poets and humorists—witness St. Albert the Great. On the other hand, look to a Mel Gibson for textbook examples of simplistic, reductionist psychology and morbid, self-indulgent, and ultimately inhuman “human interest.”
Finally, what can we say about the description of Gibson’s dramatically morbid and violent scenes as “Baroque”? Gibson himself has described the overt influence of the Italian Baroque painter Caravaggio on the staging of the film. He depicts the work that inspired him as “violent, dark, and spiritual.”xxvi This influence has often been cited; however there has been little comment on the degree to which Gibson’s film is in a very technical sense a revival of the larger Baroque outlook and sensibility. The Baroque is characterized by extravagance and theatricality, the creation of striking and dynamic effects, a preoccupation with death and the transience of things, the breaking of conventions, naturalistic depictions, and an indulgence in emotional excesses. All of this describes perfectly Gibson’s approach in The Passion. Moreover, Baroque aesthetic naturalism and emotionalism have been seen as a response to the counter-Reformation Council of Trent’s call for more compelling depiction of religious truth in order to keep the faithful within the fold of the One True Holy Roman and Apostolic Church and to win back the apostates. Sounds amazingly like a description of Gibson’s project!
Such august authorities as the film reviewer for the New Orleans Times-Picayune assure us that “charges of anti-Semitism” in this film “are completely unfounded.” Imagine that: “completely.” But is it anti-Semitic? As that well-known contemporary philosopher Bill Clinton once said “It depends on what you mean by ‘is.’” Let’s sidestep all the vicissitudes of the Problem of Being and just say this. Whatever may have been going on the director’s mind, it is a film that objectively promotes anti-Semitism.
Gibson and his defenders have tried to refute this rather obvious fact. Pat Robertson, for example, notes that “it’s important to remember that The Passion also has many positive portrayals of Jews.”xxvii He lists a number of these. Interestingly, there’s one very glaring and telling omission in his list, The Big One. For Pat Robertson, “Jews” are always the people around Jesus, not Jesus. Jesus is King of the Jews, but not a Jew. For Pat, J.C. remains essentially an E.T. But let’s get back to his main point. There are some self-conscious attempts to counteract the anti-Semitic aspects of the film. One of the characters with the most stereotypically “Jewish” features carries the cross for Jesus and is subjected to being contemptuously called “Jew” by the Romans. Oh, we get it: some of Jesus’s best friends were Jews. Haven’t we heard that one before? It just doesn’t follow in any way that because there are a few (and they really are few) positive images of Jews among the numerous negative ones in a film that it isn’t even virulently anti-Semitic, and much less does it follow that the film does not promote anti-Semitism.
Gibson himself tries to explain the problem away. In response to the question of who killed Christ, he replies “The big answer is, we all did. I'll be the first in the culpability stakes here.’”xxviii This “big answer” is indeed important to the film, for without it the whole sado-masochistic superstructure, built on the flimsiest of narrative bases, would come crashing down. But unfortunately for Gibson’s argument, his movie also concentrates very heavily on the “little answer”—so heavily that this answer can only be perceived by a great many viewers as a rather enormous one.
Gibson says further that the film is not about “the blame game” but rather about “faith, hope, love and forgiveness.” Just as Clinton wondered about the meaning of “is” you have wonder what Gibson means by the word “about.” One thing is certain, it’s about two hours and most of that time is taken up with a story about a deliriously insane Jewish mob, egged on by evil, monstrous Jewish leaders, torturing and lynching a poor, innocent (extraterrestrial) victim. Well, I guess nobody could possibly blame them, could they. How could such a silly idea ever arise in anybody’s mind?
In reality, Gibson’s Passion is in an ugly tradition of depictions of the Jews going back to medieval Passion Plays that have always offered abundant ammunition to the ever-present anti-Semites and Jew-baiters of Christendom. Tom Beaudoin notes that “none of the primary Jewish characters on the ‘good side’ in the movie (Jesus or his mother, for example) are portrayed with any easily identifiable ‘Jewish’ characteristics, such as the prayer shawls that identify most of the Jews on the ‘bad side.’”xxix The notoriously anti-Semitic passage in which the Jewish mob shoutsxxx “His blood be on us, and on our children” (Matt. 27:25) was dropped from the subtitles but remains in the sound track (in Aramaic). It took reports from focus groups for it to dawn on Gibson that including this classic proof-text for anti-Semites might be going a bit too far. Gibson commented to the New Yorker about dropping the subtitles that “if I included that in there, they’d be coming after me at my house, they’d come kill me.”xxxi And just who are these “they” that are out to “kill” Gibson at his first false move? Presumably it’s not an angry mob of Aramaic speakers from the few villages where it survives today. But let’s give him credit. At least he didn’t say, “they’d crucify me.”
Some have asked how, if the offending passage is in Aramaic, it could do any harm. True, if no one knows it’s there, it would say more about Gibson’s own anti-Semitic feelings than about the effects of the film. However, many viewers will in fact know. It’s likely that versions used by anti-Semites (as will be discussed shortly) will have the subtitles restored. In any case, the inclusion of the passage in the sound track has itself created enough discussion that many viewers will know precisely what’s going on in the scene.
Another suspicious aspect of the film is Gibson’s contrasting depiction of the Roman and Jewish elites. He presents Pilate, entirely unhistorically, as a high-minded and conscientious ruler with a strong sense of justice. Pilate towers above the leaders of the Jews, depicted by Gibson as narrow-minded, despicable, and mean-spirited. Yet such first-century authorities as the philosopher Philo and the historian Josephus report Pilate to have been strong-willed and authoritarian. According to Philo "he was a man of a very inflexible disposition, and very merciless as well as very obstinate” noted for "his habit of insulting people, and his cruelty, and his continual murders of people untried and uncondemned, and his never ending, and gratuitous, and most grievous inhumanity."xxxii As Cornell West sums it up, “Pilate was a gangster.”
It’s illuminating to look at some actual empirical evidence concerning the outlook of Passion-goers as compared to that of the general public. A poll from the Pew Research Center released on April 2 (unfortunately not April 1) said that a growing percentage of Americans—26%—believe that “Jews were responsible for Christ’s death.” Interestingly, 36% of those who have seen The Passion hold this view, (though a slightly higher than normal percentage already believed it before their indoctrination session). Among young people under thirty, the percentage holding this view has poisonously mushroomed over the past few years from 10% to 34%, while among blacks it has soared from 21% to 42%. It’s disturbing that in all probability this means that an anti-Semitic collective blame mentality is growing, and that The Passion is feeding its growth.
If the film has verifiably had such an effect in the United States, what might its influence be elsewhere? Its reception in the Middle East is instructive. It was banned in Bahrain as “contrary to the Sharia, which prohibits the representation of the prophets.” In Kuwait there’s a battle between the Sunni majority, which supports its showing, and the Shiite minority, which wants to ban it. In Gaza and the West Bank pirated copies are selling well, as they no doubt will elsewhere, with or without additional subtitling.xxxiii The film poses a problem for certain radical Islamists. It’s blatantly obvious to them (though intellectualistic, literal-minded Western liberals haven’t caught on) that the film contains a healthy and very powerful dose of anti-Semitism—but it also contains images contrary to Islam. No doubt it’s a tough dilemma, but as the history of religions testifies, when it comes to reconciling orthodoxy with hatred, consistency becomes a quite dispensable virtue.
Finally, I think that it’s worth noting that at least one member of the Catholic hierarchy has heaped some fairly harsh criticism on Gibson’s film. The Archbishop of Paris remarked with biting irony that the Gospel is "neither the Gallic Wars nor Napoleon’s Memoires,” and that “the love of God is not measured in liters of hemoglobin and spilled blood.” The Archbishop sees Gibson’s film as less a reflection of the Gospels than an expression of “the present epoch of violence and collective sadism.”
If his response is atypical, the Archbishop is himself quite unusual among the Princes of the Church. He was born Aaron Lustiger in 1926 of Polish Jewish parents. He adopted Catholicism while being sheltered during the occupation/collaboration with a Christian family in Orléans. His parents were later deported by good Christians of a different tendency and died in the Holocaust. Cardinal Lustiger has been criticized for trying to “present the Shoah as a remake of the Crucifixion,” an undertaking that runs its own risks. Yet it is noteworthy that he is accused, in other words, of promoting a confrontation between spirituality and real history with it’s real suffering—exactly the kind of confrontation that Mel Gibson so scrupulously avoids, and one that drives the remythologizing Sedavacantists and their kind into their bunker-like chapels. It has been said that the Archbishop, who has made a memorial visit to Auschwitz, where his mother died, “has never ceased to be a Jew.” In this he is quite unlike Mel Gibson’s Jesus.xxxiv
Some might think that in this review I’ve been playing Devil’s advocate. Not at all. As has already been pointed out, Satan acquits herself amazingly well in Gibson’s courtroom drama and hardly needs my help. It’s Jesus the Jew, once a victim of Roman imperialism, now the victim of this particular high-tech lynching, who can use any help he can get. So in conclusion and in all fairness, perhaps we should listen, as best we can, in our own way, to the condemned man.
What would Jesus do—if he came back? Somebody once said that “old Jesus would puke” if he could see what’s going on today in his name. Perhaps, but as we discussed, the Buddha’s more or less got that one covered. So what would he really do? Don’t we all know, in our deepest, most righteous and compassionate heart of hearts, exactly what he would do? He’d go straight to the Mall, march into the theaters showing The Passion of the Masochrist, knock over the projectors, and scatter the buttered popcorn to the four corners of the earth.
i Joe Zias, “The Mel Gibson Controversy—A Postscript” at http://www.joezias.com/MelGibsonControversy.htm.
ii Bruce Chilton, “Mel Gibson’s Passion Play” at http://www.bibleinterp.com/articles/Chilton_Passion.htm. This brilliant and erudite review is the best thing I’ve seen on the film. It’s scandalously funny, a stumbling block to all future efforts to satirize this film. Chilton encapsulates the essence of the film’s degraded aesthetics and warped ideology in his terse observation on its anti-climactic climax: “[Jesus’s] immaculate linen shroud trembles in the breeze, awaiting shipment to Turin.” Chilton also notes that Gibson seems to have gotten his image of what stoning was like more from Monty Python’s Life of Brian than from historical accounts.
iii The text can be found online at http://www.emmerich1.com/DOLOROUS_PASSION_OF_OUR_LORD_JESUS_CHRIST.htm.
iv Emmerich, p. 123.
v Emmerich, p. 171.
vi See Steven Elliot, “The Death of Judas” at http://home.austin.rr.com/selliott4/papers/judas.html for a fascinating account of how some fundamentalist interpreters actually try to construct a single script that includes all the contradictory elements, with results that are both literalist and a bit surrealist at the same time.
vii “Excerpts from ABC News/Primetime correspondent Diane Sawyer's interview with Mel Gibson, February 16, 2004” at http://www.beliefnet.com/story/140/story_14044_2.html.
viii Yes, “peeks kill”—a bizarrely ironic birthplace for someone accused of promoting a voyeuristic attitude to violence and death.
ix “Pain and Passion: Mel Gibson Tackles Addiction, Recovery and the Controversies Over His New Film” at http://abcnews.go.com/sections/Primetime/Entertainment/mel_gibson_passion_040216-1.html.
xi “Frequently Asked Questions About Mel Gibson's Passion” at http://www.beliefnet.com/story/140/story_14087_2.html.
xii Jeannette Walls with Ashley Pearson, “Mel Gibson says his wife could be going to hell” at http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/4224452/.
xiii Gayle Macdonald, “Christ complex,” at http://www.caviezelcountry.com/id118.htm.
xiv “Toni Morrison and Cornell West in Conversation,” The Nation Institute, New York Society for Ethical Culture, March 24, 2004. Video on Free Speech TV.
xv Tom Beaudoin, “The anti-Christian Passion of the Christ” at http://ncronline.org/NCR_Online/archives2/2004a/031904/031904s.htm.
xvi Lisa Falkenberg, “Mother acquitted of killing children,” Associated Press (4/4/04)
xvii John Dominic Crossan, “Hymn to a Savage God” at http://www.beliefnet.com/story/141/story_14143_1.html.
xviii Antonin Artaud, The Theater and Its Double (New York: Grove Press, 1958).
xix Ibid., p. 103.
xx Ibid., p. 84.
xxi Ibid., pp. 84-85.
xxii Ibid., p. 86.
xxiii Ibid., p. 87.
xxiv Ibid., p. 86.
xxv Ibid., p. 90.
xxvi Holly McClure, “A Very Violent Passion,” at http://www.nydailynews.com/front/story/54288p-50909c.html.
xxvii Pat Robertson, “An Intensely Personal Film” Beliefnet at http://www.beliefnet.com/story/141/story_14130_1.html]
xxviii “Pain and Passion.”
xxix “The anti-Christian Passion of the Christ.”
xxx Yes, the mob. They all thought of this and shouted it out at exactly the same time!
xxxi Quoted in Garry Wills, “God in the Hands of Angry Sinners” New York Review of Books, vol. 11, no. 6 (April 8, 2004), p. 68.
xxxii “Between 'Passion' and Purim: Interview of Rabbi Brad Hirschfield by Rebecca Phillips, Beliefnet at http://www.beliefnet.com/story/141/story_14143_1.html.
xxxiii Libération (4/2/04).
xxxiv "Mgr Lustiger contre le ‘sadisme’ du film de Gibson" in Le Monde (3/26/04).